Bicycle touring has become super popular in the last few years.
By combining the thrill of cycling, the adventure of backpacking, and the freedom and sense of achievement of hiking, it can make for a pretty amazing outdoor experience.
However, if you’re new to the world of bike touring, you might be a little confused about the requirements and specs of a typical touring bike.
After all, different types of bikes have different pros and cons.
Putting in the work to understand the differences between road bikes and touring bikes will help you choose a bicycle that fits you and ensures you get the best out of your touring experience.
So what is a touring bike? And how do they tend to differ from typical road bikes?
In this article, we’ll dive into that question by focusing on these key points:
- What Is A Touring Bike?
- Touring Bike Vs Road Bike: What’s The Difference?
- A Brief Guide To Bicycle Touring
Ready to get to grips with the touring bike vs road bike debate?
Let’s dive in!
What Is A Touring Bike?
The typical touring bike can look like a bit of a blast from the past. These models will often have a retro look, with a long wheelbase, mudguards, and steel frame.
But those features are there for a reason. Ultimately, the touring bike is built to be multi-purpose.
These models should be versatile, durable, and able to handle long day rides and multi-day trips. They also need to be able to carry heavy loads containing everything you need for your adventure.
As such, touring bikes tend to be covered in extra mounts for accessories like racks, water bottles, bags, lights, and mudguards. Anything you’ll need on an extended trip will have to be packed onto this mode of transport.
In order to cope with long luggage hauls and withstand tough roads and varying terrain, heavier frames are also necessary.
Touring bikes don’t have to be used exclusively for bikepacking adventures, either; they can also be used in more basic contexts, like during your daily commute. The versatility of these bikes is partly what makes them so popular.
But in order to understand the major differences between touring bikes and regular road bikes, it’s important to examine their key features in a little more detail.
Touring Bike Vs Road Bike: What’s The Difference?
To the beginner cyclist, though, touring bikes may not appear that different from regular road bikes.
So what is it that sets the two apart?
The Key Features Of A Touring Bike
Touring bikes and road bikes have plenty in common. They’re built to provide support over long-distance rides, and they’re intended to handle tarmac roads with smoothness and stability.
But touring bicycles have a few key traits that distinguish them from road bikes. And while models can vary in many different ways, there are a few boxes you can expect pretty much all touring bikes to tick.
#1. Steel Frame
It’s important for touring bike frames to be strong, durable, and able to carry heavy loads.
While various types of material can be used, steel is certainly the best for this purpose. It’s also easy to repair and to find replacement components for in far-flung places. Often the fork will be steel as well as the frame, for the same reason.
#2. Optimal Geometry
The geometry of a touring bike will tend to favor stability over outright speed and agility, with a long wheelbase and chainstays, and slack frame angles.
The longer wheelbase will prevent your luggage or the front mudguard from getting in the way of your pedal stroke, while a short-ish reach will provide comfort by offering a more upright riding position.
#3. Powerful Disc Brakes
Most touring bikes come with disc brakes, due to the fact that they offer stronger braking and better all-weather consistency.
Having powerful disc brakes at the center of each wheel is particularly crucial on a touring bike, which can have 20kg or more of extra luggage weighing down the frame.
#4. Wide Tires
The inclusion of wider tires than on road bikes also plays an essential role by cushioning the touring bike against the road and offering extra traction, which comes in handy over rougher terrain.
This helps make touring bikes more versatile than road bikes, which are more or less restricted to paved surfaces.
#5. Wide Gear Range
A wide range of gears going down to 1:1 or lower helps even the most heavily loaded touring bikes get up hills.
At the same time, having the top-end gearing will help you keep up a fast pace on flatter roads.
Some touring bikes feature a triple chainset to provide a wider range, rather than the double that’s typical on road bikes – although these have gone out of fashion a little recently due to their added weight and the additional space required to accommodate the extra chainring.
#6. Luggage-Carrying Facilities
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of any touring bicycle is their capacity for carrying heavy loads, which could include a tent, food, cooking gear, changes of clothes, as well as wet and cold weather gear.
That luggage will usually be carried in panniers mounted on a front or rear rack, while saddlebags, rack-top bags or bar bags can offer further luggage-carrying facilities.
Panniers are ideal because of their low center of gravity, firm attachment to the bike, plus the fact that they’re out of the way at the front and rear of the bike and unlikely to rub against your legs while you pedal.
The Key Features Of A Road Bike
Road bikes are fairly easy to identify. They’re built for speed and are packed with a range of features designed to support that priority.
#1. Lightweight Frame
A lightweight, aerodynamic frame is important when it comes to generating speed and moving swiftly across a variety of road types.
Often, road bikes will use lightweight materials such as aluminum or carbon fiber, rather than the steel generally favored by touring bikes or some hybrid models.
#2. Thin Tires
Thin tires help road bikes achieve speed across flat tarmac surfaces. And since road bikes are designed for staying on the road, they don’t have any form of suspension and can struggle with uneven surfaces. This means they won’t be comfortable off-road.
#3. Drop Handlebars
In order to help riders feel comfortable in a range of positions, road bikes typically use drop handlebars.
The tops, with your hands on either side of the stem, are used for steep climbs or cruising, while the drops (the lower parts of the bar) help riders maintain control during descents and offer a more aerodynamic riding position.
Meanwhile, the hoods are the brake lever covers, designed to provide a comfortable cruising position and good leverage for climbing out of the saddle.
#4. Less Versatile
Road bikes are built for one job: ensuring smooth, speedy rides on all sorts of tarmac, from small cycles paths to busy highways. They do this well, but what’s sacrificed is versatility.
While hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, and touring bikes aim to be able to tackle a greater range of terrain, road bikes are designed for smoother surfaces.
#5. Narrow Seat
The seats on road bikes are generally narrower and less padded than those of touring bikes, which are designed to accommodate for long days of riding from overnight stop to overnight stop.
However, some riders actually prefer these firm, narrow saddles for long rides because they support you where you need it most and don’t compress nerves. As with most bike comfort matters, though, it really comes down to personal preference.
Most road bikes use rim brakes – though some modern high-end road bikes have transitioned to disc brakes instead.
Rim brakes tend to be cheaper and lighter, but offer less overall stopping power – especially in bad weather.
A Brief Guide To Bicycle Touring
Now that you’re aware of the key differences between road bikes and touring bikes, it will hopefully be clearer to you which type of bicycle suits your individual needs and requirements.
When it comes to the touring bike vs road bike debate, it’s important to note that both types of bicycle can be used in a range of different circumstances, even if they’re not as versatile as a hybrid model.
However, if you’re keen to set off on an outdoors bikepacking adventure, cycling long distances and carrying plenty of equipment to help you camp out and explore nature, a touring bike is what you’ll be looking for.
And there are plenty of other things to consider besides your bicycle of choice.
Not only does bike touring require solid panniers that will help you to carry the essentials, you’ll also want to explore the possibility of purchasing seat packs, frame packs, repair kits, and much more.
For a more detailed look into exactly what you’ll need on a bike tour, check out our comprehensive bikepacking gear list for everything you need to know about going on a touring adventure.
And if you’re interested in further growing your understanding of precisely what bicycle touring involves, you’ll definitely want to read our Complete Guide to Bicycle Touring!